READ : John 3:16-18
Love, including God’s love, is not measured by how much you feel but by how much you give – or how much you are given.
One night Jesus was talking with a man called Nicodemus, a leading religious teacher from Jerusalem. Nicodemus had a number of questions he wanted to ask this young rabbi whose miracles and sayings were making such an impression upon the whole country. But Nicodemus had a position and reputation to protect – it wouldn’t do to be identified too closely with one who was so far outside the establishment – so he came to visit Jesus when no one else was around. During their conversation Jesus told Nicodemus some very important things, none more important than this:
For God so love the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
John 3:16-18, nrsv
GOD LOVED THE WORLD
John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . .” It’s one of the most famous and familiar verses in the Bible. Could it be too familiar for some of us? Do you understand what this verse really says? Well, in the first place, it says that God loves the world. It says that he gave his Son to save people from sin. It says that those who believe in Christ have eternal life. All of that is there.
But like so many things that seem to be simple on the surface, once we really examine it, John 3:16 turns out to be quite a bit more complex than it first appears. The fact is, this famous text isn’t just a general statement about faith or salvation. It is an incredibly profound explanation of an indescribably wonderful thing: the love of God. What John 3:16 really does is answer some especially important questions. Questions like these: We can see from the world around us that God must be infinitely powerful and wise, but does he feel anything, does he care, or is he just some great cosmic force? Answer: God loves, he loves the world. But what does that mean? How does God love the world? Answer: he loves the world so much that he gave his only Son to save it.
There is so much to think about here. Let’s start by considering the object of God’s love. What is it that God loves? Well, he loves the world, of course – we’ve just heard that. But what exactly is meant by “the world”? Is it the created universe? The word John uses is “cosmos,” and that certainly can mean the whole universe. It’s still used that way today in English. Does God love that? I think he does, or perhaps I should say, I think he admires it. When God finished his work of creation, the Bible says that he looked at everything he had made, “And behold, it was very good.” Like any skilled craftsman God the Creator loves his work. But I don’t think that is what John 3:16 is telling us.
Does world mean the earth, the place where we live? It can mean that; in fact, it does mean that here in this passage when it says that God sent his Son “into the world.” But once again, that’s not the meaning. The earth isn’t what God supremely loves.
“World” is also used negatively in the New Testament to mean human society and culture when it is organized without and even against God. The world of human society often forgets God, and when it does, it becomes arrogant and oppressive. It actively promotes evil. Does God love this world, the world of pride and greed and moral corruption, the world of slavery and idolatry and sexual perversion, of violence and exploitation and indifference to the poor, the world of lies and vanity and emptiness? He does not! And neither must we. “Do not love the world, or the things of the world,” wrote John in another place, “If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them” (1 John 2:15).
So what does it mean to say that God loves the world? What is “the world” in John 3:16? It is the world of people. What does God love when he loves the world? He loves us. Is that such a big deal? It certainly is! Perhaps you’ve always assumed that God has to love people, but he really doesn’t. After all, what have we ever done for him that would make him want to love us? What is there in us that would make us attractive to God? We usually pay attention to him only when we desperately need his help. We decide we don’t really need him to live our lives or even to explain our world. We break his laws every day. We continually abuse and mistreat his creation, including our fellow creatures. Why should God love us? It would make much more sense for him to ignore us, or maybe even to wash his hands of the whole business and destroy us all.
But love us he does! It’s an amazing thing to contemplate. God loves people, people like you and me. People who desperately need to be loved, but who don’t really deserve it. That is the truly astonishing thing about the love of God. The Bible puts it this way:
At just the right time Christ died for ungodly people. He died for us when we had no power of our own. It is unusual for anyone to die for a godly person. Maybe someone would be willing to die for a good person. But here is how God has shown his love for us. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:6-8, NIrV
GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD
But this wonderful text (John 3:16) doesn’t just tell us that God loves the undeserving world of sinful people. It tells us how much he loves it. In one sense, the love of God cannot be measured. As scripture testifies, God’s love is infinite. It is as high as the heavens are above the earth; it is eternal, from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 103).
But in another sense God’s love can be measured by the same standard as anyone else’s: that is, by how much it is willing to give. The real test of love isn’t what we feel. Feelings come and go. It isn’t what we say. Professions of love are easy, and the world is full of lovers’ extravagant claims. The real test of love is what we give. The more you are willing to give, the greater the sacrifice you make for the one you love, the greater is that love. Almost 400 years ago, the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan lost his beautiful wife. As a memorial to her, he poured his entire fortune into building her tomb. Twenty thousand workers labored for more than 20 years, building exquisitely in marble and inlaid precious stone, and in the end, the emperor had erected the most gorgeous building in the world – the Taj Mahal. It still stands today, in Agra, India, as a testimony to the magnitude of his love.
But God’s love is even greater. It gave even more. Just how much did God love the world? Here’s how much: he loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son for it. God gave his Son first by sending him into the world. Jesus left the glory of heaven to enter our world by becoming a man. Then God gave him again when he sent Jesus to die on the cross as a perfect offering for the forgiveness of human sin.
I’m afraid many people think that, while Jesus is kind and merciful, God the Father is an angry judge who only wants to punish. We think the cross was where a loving Jesus offered himself to pacify a wrathful God, and that Jesus was able somehow there to turn God’s hatred of us into a grudging sort of acceptance. But nothing could be further from the truth! Jesus’ whole coming is an expression of God’s love, from first to last. He was “of the Father’s love begotten.” He was sent by the Father’s love to assume our flesh and blood, and to go to the cross as the supreme measure of that love. And Jesus willingly came and suffered because he shares his Father’s loving heart to the fullest.
Whenever I question whether God really does love someone like me, I only have to remember the cross to be sure. When I’m tempted to think that maybe God doesn’t care, instead I want to think about Jesus coming into the world to save me. And when I want to know just how much God really loves me, I only have to consider how much he gave for me. He gave his one and only Son to die for my sins so that, trusting in Christ, I could be forgiven.
If you know the truth about the greatness of God’s love, if you have really grasped it, can you do anything but believe and accept it? Could anyone be so hard-hearted as to realize how great God’s love is, to feel the truth of that, and then to reject it? I don’t see how.
But some do. Jesus’ coming into the world was an hour of decision. It’s a life or death matter. Not just physical life or death; eternal life or death. John 3:16 says that the purpose of God’s sending his only Son into the world was “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” If you do believe in him, you already have eternal life. But if you don’t believe, you are perishing, and someday you will be lost eternally.
God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn people. Jesus came to save (v.17). But some people are inevitably condemned because they reject him. They refuse to believe in him. They do not recognize and accept him as Savior. They do not worship and serve him as Lord. When the sun comes up in the morning, it comes to bring light into the world, not darkness. But darkness is the inevitable by-product of its light. The sun cannot shine without creating shadow. In the same way, Jesus came to bring light and life to people, not to punish them, not to send them to hell. He came to receive people, not to reject them. But his coming inevitably produces a division in the world.
“Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (v. 18)
To “believe in the name of the only Son of God” means to accept Jesus as he truly is. It means believing that everything God is and does is to be found only in Jesus Christ. It involves putting your whole trust in the whole person of Christ. That is the only proper way to respond to God’s great love.
Sadly, some refuse to do it, to their infinite loss. Jesus does not so much condemn such people; they condemn themselves. They do not turn to the light because they prefer the darkness. “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (v. 19). That’s the shadow that cannot be avoided with Christ’s coming into the world.
But the great good news of the gospel is this. God does love the world! He loves people! He loves us so much he sent his only Son to die in order to save us. And everyone who believes in him will not perish.
The key question is this: Do you believe in his name? Do you accept God’s great love in Jesus Christ?